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15 Kislev 5763 - November 20, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Third Voice of the Vilna Gaon
150th Yahrtzeit of HaRav Yitzchok Eisek Chover zt"l

by Binyomin Nehorai

"Third voice (two generations removed) of the Vilna Gaon." That was how one of the great talmidim of the Vilna Gaon's talmidim was known. HaRav Yitzchok Eisek Chover (Wildmann), a marvelous gaon who was the student in nistar of HaRav Menachem Mendel Mishklov, the "Second Voice" of the Gaon, a talmid and exponent of his kabbalistic teachings.

HaRav Menachem Mendel did not, perhaps, become as famous as HaRav Chaim Volozhin, but he was one of the most prominent and perhaps the most important of the kabbalistic students of the Vilna Gaon. He spent almost two years in close association with the Gaon and even had the merit of spending one seder night with him. He actually published a commentary of the Gaon on the Haggodoh, as well as the famous commentary on Mishlei. He later moved to Eretz Yisroel and was one of the leaders of the community of the talmidei HaGra who moved to Eretz Yisroel.

He describes one conversation he had with the Gaon, in his commentary on Ovos. It was an occasion where the name of the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle was mentioned in the presence of the Gaon. "Aristotle," said the Gaon, "recognized his Master and rebelled against Him." Not inadvertently but intentionally. "If he were to come here, I would bring the sun and moon onto this table and show him the wonders of Hashem. Surely his contemporary, Shimon Hatzaddik, was capable of proving to him the existence of Hashem! However, Aristotle was not interested."

Apparently the talmid, Rav Menachem Mendel Mishklov, could not hide his amazement at this statement from the Gaon, so the latter added the following, as if to confirm his initial assertion: "Why are you amazed? I would do it with the aid of one Sheim. Even the Geonim after the compilation of the Talmud still knew that Sheim."

Such was the first generation: "The Gaon" -- with the definite article, without any additional titles, for he is best praised without lengthy descriptions.

Who was the rov of the Gaon himself? HaRav Wosner shlita asked the Chazon Ish this question, and he answered on the spot, "Eliyohu Hanovi is a good rebbe."

In that same conversation, the Chazon Ish also said that if the Gra's great accomplishments in chochmas hanistar had been better known, there would not have been such a great split.

HaRav Chover himself testified about seeing a manuscript in the possession of a grandson of the Gaon which contained an explanation of the dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel at the beginning of maseches Kiddushin in which the Gaon states that these chiddushim were revealed to him by Eliyohu Hanovi.

The talmidim of the Gaon say the following about HaRav Menachem Mendel Mishklov: "He was loved by the Gaon and had the merit of hearing Torah from his holy mouth. He revealed to him his secret thoughts during his happy moments."

HaRav Menachem Mendel himself testified: "Hashem saw my unworthiness and brought me to the house of our master, the gaon and chossid, rov of all the Diaspora, of Vilna, and Hashem made me find favor in his eyes, and I served him with all my strength. During the entire two years less a third that I was by him, I was constantly in his presence, `I held him and would not let him go,' and I stayed in his company day and night. I went where he went and slept where he slept. There was not a moment that I was not in his presence. He taught me some insights of chochmoh revealing to me some precious `doorways' of wisdom."

His Youth

When he was fourteen Rav Yitzchok Eisek Chover already took the first tentative steps into the world of Kabboloh. Already then he entered the Holy of Holies, the teachings of the Arizal and of the Gaon. His son relates the following about this period:

"When he was a lad, about 14 years old, he was chosen by the holy and pious ish hoElokim HaRav Menachem Mendel Mishklov (now buried in Yerushalayim), who learned with him matters that are studied in secret: every great matter, ma'aseh Bereishis, the secrets of the Merkovoh and the secrets of the Torah. He handed over to him some hidden treasures, many manuscripts from the Vilna Gaon, who resembled a divine angel. There can be no doubt that HaRav Menachem Mendel who was famous for his great strength, righteousness, piety and holiness, would not have disregarded Chazal's admonition only to hand over such material to a select person, wise and G-d-fearing by nature -- and especially with regard to the manuscripts of his holy rov, the Vilna Gaon ztvk"l, which, as is well known, were more precious to him than all the objects of the world -- unless he was fully convinced from his own experience with him that the recipient was worthy of receiving them. It is well known how much he accomplished in this wisdom, more than all the chachomim of his generation."

Not much is known about his childhood, but his son's testimony is witness to the fact that already at a young age he stood out among his contemporaries.

He was born in Horodna, Lithuania in 5549 (1789). About his father, HaRav Yaakov Chover, HaRav Yitzchok Eisek writes in the introduction to his responsa Binyan Olom that he was "perfect and righteous in his deeds, a man of perfect faith with Hashem his G-d with all his soul and all his might."

In one of the teshuvos in the sefer he debates with his father whether a mechitzoh made up of people is a valid mechitzoh.

Rav Yitzchok Eisek's mother was also known as a very righteous woman, and he credits his parents with [having provided him with an excellent education]. "Both of them together instructed me in the straight path and guided me in the way of righteousness and taught me the truth."

From a young age his exceptional qualities of modesty and righteousness were apparent. According to the testimony of his son, even then not a night passed without his depriving himself of sleep or other material pleasures. "From his youth until old age he served his Creator perfectly, despising all the pleasures of the world, dismissing them as insignificant, spending all his days in Torah and avodoh. We all know and have heard of his wonderful hasmodoh and diligence from the days of his youth, which were a source of much amazement."

When his fame as a great gaon began to spread, various Lithuanian communities competed for the zechus to have him as their rov. After serving in the rabbinate at Prozhin, Rozhinoi, Volkovysk and Tiktin (Tikocyn), he became rov of Suvalk at the age of 60. Since it was an especially prominent position and he was also niftar there, he is remembered as rov there.

HaRav Yitzchok Eisek was a giant in both nigleh and nistar. His personality was a faithful reflection of the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon including boundless vistas of nigleh and nistar, halocho and aggodoh, lomdus and machshovoh, using profound and straight insight, aiming to attain the emes without compromises. This was a legacy of the Vilna Gaon and his talmidim who disseminated the study of Torah qualitatively and quantitatively.

His son writes about his bekius that "everybody knows about his proficiency in Shas, Tosafos, Rif and Rosh, he was totally conversant in all of these as well as with the seforim of the poskim and the mekubbolim." As for his sharpness, HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon from Kovna wrote, "his works are sweet to the palate and built on straight foundations."

He left behind him an immense spiritual legacy. We cannot within this framework undertake a survey of all his many works, not even those that were published, but shall only mention a few of them.

The sefer Bayis Ne'eman deals with the topic of eid echod ne'emon be'issurin, and discusses the many halochos and details related to this topic, which are spread throughout the Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim and Acharonim.

The sefer Beis Yitzchok is a compilation of all the halochos of bereiroh. Another of his books, seder zmanim deals with mitzvos that are dependant on time, such as Shabbos, prayer and Krias Shema. His Shut are a densely-packed treasure of responsa on Orach Chaim, Yoreh Deah and Even Hoezer.

He also wrote a commentary on the Haggodoh called Yad Mitzrayim as well as Shabbos Hagodol and Shabbos Teshuva droshos and other works on aggodoh.

HaRav Yitzchok Eisek dealt a lot in the teachings of his rabbonim the Vilna Gaon and HaRav Menachem Mendel Mishklov. In various works, collectively entitled Beer Yitzchok he wrote a commentary on selected sayings of the Vilna Gaon, on Aderes Eliyohu and glosses on Mayim Adirim, the commentary on Idro Zuto of his rebbe, HaRav Menachem Mendel Mishklov.

His other works on Kabboloh are also all permeated with traditions from the Vilna Gaon and his talmidim, a tradition which he transmitted serving as a conduit and bequeathing it to future generations. Many of his writings remained in manuscript form and became lost. Among them are works on the Torah, Ma'ase Merkovoh, the Zohar Hachodosh, Ra'ayo Meheimno, Yeshayohu, Sefer Yetziroh and others.

In a special work called Mogen Vetzinoh, first published in Johannesburg two years after his death (5615- 1855) HaRav Yitzchok Eisek defends the sanctity and the historical integrity of the Zohar and the Kabboloh generally, against its detractors. In this book, which was written as a response to Arye Nohem by Rav Yehuda Arye de Modena, the author presents an extensive survey of the Toras hanistar, of "practical" Kabboloh, the belief in gilgulim and so on. He asked that this work be among those mentioned on his tombstone.

In 1990 (5750) HaRav Shlomoh Vidan zt"l, published a collection of short quotations taken from the many works of HaRav Yitzchok Eisek entitled Otzros Rabbi Yitzchok Eisek Chover. It presents insights, ideas and chiddushim of HaRav Eisek that are often not accessible.

He always mentions the Vilna Gaon with much awe and respect. This is how he describes him in one of his books:

"In our generation we merited the pure and luminous light that shone on the world, and spread the cloud of its radiance on the four corners of the earth from one end of the world to the other, a holy heavenly creature descended from the heavens, rabbeinu hagodol HaRav Eliyohu from Vilna z"l, in his commentary on the Safro Detzni'uso and his writings on esoteric passages from the holy Zohar based on remarkable discoveries made by the Arizal, he discovered ethereal matters that several generations before him did not merit and are not mentioned in the kabbalistic writings of the Rishonim from the Ramban onwards. His words illuminate like sapphires the words of the holy Zohar. People with discernment realize that the esoteric statements in the Zohar can only be understood with the explanations of Rabbeinu Hagodol, z"l."

In another passage he writes as follows:

"Our whole generation, including many of its greatest rabbonim, knows and recognize the preeminence, righteousness and wisdom of the true Gaon, me'or hagoloh Rav Chaim of Volozhin who drank from the Torah of Eliyohu z"l and kissed the dust of his feet with awe and dread. Pay attention to his introduction to the commentary of his great rov to the Safro Detzni'uso, his great and awesome revelations. Inter alia, he relates wonderful expositions that he heard from his rov the Vilna Gaon zt"l and on one occasion [his rov darshened] when R. Shimon bar Yochai sat on his right side and the Arizal on his left. This incident became publicized by a contemporary who had a dream [about it] and was a spiritual personality, as related there. Go and consider the quality of this great witness, the gaon HaRav Chaim z"l who, apart from his greatness and righteousness and whose fame spread to all the corners of the world, many of us who knew him know that he was an exceptionally wise man, who was restrained and hated any exaggerations. How, then, can we think that one of these two, either the Vilna Gaon z"l or his talmid HaRav Chaim, could have lied? Neither of these possibilities can be entertained, since both the rav and the talmid are known in our generation, and there is none, even among the wicked of our nation, who will deny the glory of their greatness and who would cast doubt on their credibility, for to him were revealed awesome things and the secrets of the Merkovoh from R. Shimon bar Yochai and the Arizal that were not revealed to earlier chachmei Yisroel. It can be clearly perceived that they were masters."

He invested a tremendous amount of effort into deciphering the writings of the Arizal and the Vilna Gaon. His talmid, HaRav Yitzchok Kahane-Kellner testified that his rov told him that he spent thirty continuous years gaining an understanding of the writings of the Ari and the Vilna Gaon. Elsewhere this talmid writes what he heard from his rov about the status of the Kabboloh of the Arizal and of the Vilna Gaon within the Kabboloh as a whole:

"I heard from my rov who heard from HaRav Mendel, z"l that his rav the Vilna Gaon said that the statements of the Arizal are like a parable and at the time he did not have permission to reveal their meaning. However, in the days of the great Vilna Gaon who lived a few hundred years after the Arizal, he was granted the method of revealing by way of remez which is the simple explanation of the Kabboloh, and that too with extreme effort, but about this he found it necessary to be very brief in his revelations."

His Will

Everything depends on mazel and, unlike others, no biography of HaRav Yitzchok Eisek has been printed, and so we have lost some precious pearls regarding the actions and deeds of one of the most special members of the group that absorbed the light of the Vilna Gaon's teachings. The main source that we have is a biographical introduction to a reprint of the sefer Mogen Vetzinoh written by HaRav Chaim Friedlander, zt"l. Still, we can glean something of his righteousness from the will he left behind.

In it he requests that the arba misos beis din be performed on his body; that a request for mechilla be announced in all the shuls and botei medrash of Suvalk in case he sinned [against anyone] financially or physically, and that it be announced that anyone who considered himself to be a creditor should inform the beis din in order to be reimbursed from his estate.

A special place in the history of this spiritual giant was taken up by his anovoh. In his will he writes: "Not to mention the words "gaon" or "godol" in the hesped. Woe unto me that I have become known as a gaon and a godol and I know myself that I have not attained this quality, even in part. All the more so should the words "tzaddik" or "chossid" not be mentioned. Nor should the following appellations be inscribed on my grave: gaon or me'or hagolah or chorif veboki, chas vesholom. Surrounding communities should also be notified not to mention the above appellations. Only reproof in words of mussar [should be said in the hespedim] which is the end of every person."

This request, it must be recalled, was made by a man, who was like an angel, and never spoke a sichas chulin in his life, and who was conversant in the whole Torah, nigleh as well as nistar. He was as familiar with the sugya of Dina Degarmei as he was with the Heichalos chapters and Maase Merkovoh. He was a spiritual giant who responded to questions dispatched to him from every Jewish community.

Throughout his life Rav Yitzchok Eisek was a living example of his statement in his own work Or Torah: "A person can only acquire the crown of Torah through middos, first and foremost among them being a humble and subdued spirit." This is an accurate description of his character and that is how he departed from this world.

At the age of fifty we find him corresponding about agunos matters with an avreich thirty years younger than he. He opens this correspondence by telling the avreich that it would actually "have been fitting for him to be reticent, for this matter requires treatment by the `holy of Holies,' the geonim of our generation, who have the power and authority in these matters, and I have always avoided poking my head among these lofty mountains, but because you have implored me and due to your great love I have decided to breach my usual boundaries by attaching myself to the righteous and expressing my humble opinion."

This avreich later became famous as the gaon of Kovna, HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor zt"l.

Rav Yitzchok Eisek passed away on erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5613 (1852) at the relatively young age of 64. On that day the Jewish nation lost "a giant among men," a "divine mekubal," a "kedosh Hashem," as he was termed by Rav Eliyohu Chaim Meisel, the rov of Lodz.

He departed this world, leaving behind him a set table full of superior food. As for us, we have neither the mouth to eat it with, nor teeth to chew it with.

Nigleh and Nistar

Understanding the complete correlation between nigleh and nistar is one of cornerstones in the teachings of the Vilna Gaon. HaRav Yitzchok Eisek mentions this basic premise several times.

In his book Mogen Vetzinoh he writes: "We have a tradition from the Vilna Gaon that we should not choliloh say that true sod can contradict an established and accepted halachic ruling, based on the foundations of psak handed down to us, and [if it does appear to be so] it is just that the Acharonim did not fathom the depths of this chochmah."

In his other book Pischei She'orim he deals with reconciling different shittos in nigleh and nistar, as the publisher writes on the title page: "All the secret and esoteric statements in the writings of the Vilna Gaon z"l are explained and deciphered, and wherever his words seem to contradict the Arizal he reconciles them with his deep insight." This sefer also explains many of the deep concepts of the Arizal in terms that are more familiar to lomdei nigleh.

This claim of unity recurs in many of the writings of the Vilna Gaon's talmidim. In his introduction to Medrash Rus Hechodosh, Rav Avrohom Simcha from Amchislav writes that his uncle, HaRav Chaim Volozhin told him in the name of the Vilna Gaon that "the holy Zohar does not differ from the gemora anywhere. It is just that people do not know the pshat -- either in the gemora or in the Zohar."

Rav Avrohom Simcha justifies this premise in the introduction to his Shut Binyan Shel Simcha: "It is impossible that the nistar part of the Torah could differ from the nigleh part. For how could the Torah contradict itself? And anyone familiar with his holy statements in Aderes Eliyohu will see [this] in many places. For this is his holy method: to completely integrate the nigleh and the nistar."

Predictably this attitude has ramifications in practice. An example of this is the Vilna Gaon's shittah according to which one need not adopt the minhag of the kabbalists to slice twelve challos at every [Shabbos] meal, following instead the ruling of the Rashbo to slice at every meal both of the two challos on which the brochoh is made.

According to one tradition the dispute between the Vilna Gaon and the Ari stems from a different interpretation of the acronym yud, beis, ches that appear in this context in the Zohar. Whereas the Ari understood this to be a reference to twelve challos that have to be sliced at every meal (yud beis challos), the Vilna Gaon explained that it refers to twelve halves (yud beis chatzo'in) obtained as a result of eating four halves per meal at three meals, i.e. slicing two challos at every meal."

"Who will build structures to teach correct paths, to teach halocho lema'aseh? Who can pasken like him, hitting the mark precisely? Who will reveal the depths of the Torah and produce precious hidden treasures? Who will illuminate a path to explain the words of R. Shimon bar Yochai, the Arizal and all the mekubolim, having complied more than twenty works on this chochmoh?

(His son after he passed away)

"Now, due to our many sins, during the fire in my town, all the manuscripts of the Vilna Gaon and three volumes of the mekubal Rav Eisek of Suvalk were burned. Would that I had gone up in flames instead of them. Their incineration is equivalent to the burning of the Beis Hamikdosh.

(From a letter of Rav Shlomoh Luria)

Chochmoh and Binah

Chochmoh is the ability, given from Him Yisborach, to man to understand the Torah. Binah is the effort he puts in with his own mind to understand one thing from another. One who learns Torah but never is zoche to teach it, has only reached the aspect of chochmoh. But one who learns and teaches achieves both aspects.

(from Otzros Rabbi Yitzchok Eisek Chover, p. 16)

Enemies of Yisroel

Yisroel has two kinds of enemies. One is in this world, to subjugate their bodies. The second is in the upper world, the Sar of Eisov, to subjugate their souls. This we see by Homon who is called: Ish tzar ve'oyeiv. He oppresses (tzar) from above and is an enemy (oyeiv) below. And when we are occupied with Torah, we can overcome both of them . . . as it says (Shemos 34:16): Chorus al haLuchos, [read cheirus] free from the subjugation of the earthly kingdoms and from the Mal'ach Hamoves.

(from Otzros Rabbi Yitzchok Eisek Chover, p. 3)


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